Hundreds of dead sharks illegally fished inside Ecuador's Galapagos National Park were returned to the sea after scientists counted and sampled what one expert called a "marine massacre."
"It was literally like a funeral at sea," University of North Carolina marine biologist John Bruno told msnbc.com. "It was rough and windy and the sun was going down and all 379 sharks were dragged to a gap in the gunwale and eased in the water as the ship slowly moved along.
"They slowly sank — which was for some reason the most powerful aspect of the whole day for a lot of people on board — lots of tears were shed."
Ecuadorian law required that illegally caught fish must be returned to the sea, a prosecutor told Bruno.
Moreover, three of the 30 fishermen arrested —the ship's captain and two crew — were taken with the team for the burial last Saturday "so they could see that we did put all of them into the ocean, i.e., didn't sell them ourselves," Bruno said.
In a blog posting titled "What a marine massacre looks like," Bruno noted that before the burial the team "identified, sexed, and measured every individual (there turned out to be 379 sharks, not 357 as reported earlier). We also took samples for genetic and demographic analysis (very little is known about the biology of some of these species).
"It took 10 hours," he added, "and was grueling and very dangerous work. (There were lots of knives, hooks, and other sharp objects around, the sharks are very heavy and the deck of the ship was extremely slippery.)
"Beyond that, it was one of the most depressing and intense days of my life. It felt like we were unearthing a mass grave in a war zone. The bodies of the sharks were literally coming out of a dark hold beneath the deck as if they were being unearthed."
Bruno said the fact that the sharks' dorsal fins were "nearly cut off, but just hanging on by a thin piece of tissue," suggests they were being harvested for their fins. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in Asia.
The prosecutor with the team "told me the whole sharks would go for about $2,000 each" in the ship's homeport of Manta, Ecuador, Bruno added.
All the sharks were from species (bigeye thresher, blue, Galapagos, hammerhead, tiger and mako) listed as vulnerable or near threatened.
As tragic as last week's seizure was, Bruno said illegal shark fishing is practiced globally.
"This happens every day somewhere in the world," he said. "In fact, this was a pretty small scale operation."
The crew will face criminal charges, park officials have said, since shark fishing, and any commercial-scale fishing, is illegal inside the park and its marine reserve.
In the Galapagos, illegal shark fishing and finning — the act of cutting off the fins — took off in the late 1990s when the local sea cucumber fishery collapsed.
The Galapagos, an island chain made famous by Charles Darwin and his "Origin of Species," was declared a U.N. World Heritage site in 1979.